If you were born in the eighties in the northern part of India it would be unlikely for you to not have come in contact with the rich tradition of Hindi comic books. I remember them with a fondness which I reserve for only a select few memories. Those comic books now appear to be an exclusive experience to me because they seem to have really picked up steam by the beginning of the eighties and waned by the end of the nineties. In essence, the best of them, the ones which were the most naively drawn and had the most amateur dialogues, exactly coincided with that phase of my life which for most people is slightly ridiculous, moderately impressionable and very gullible. With their wannabe-scientific bent and easy coincidences, those comic books still represent to me a bygone era which had the simple charm of innocence. The superheroes that my generation remembers as being often lanky and generally disproportional have since morphed into buffed up bodybuilders and while my heroes had to contend with 32 or 64 pages of rough paper, their modern avatars, driven by digital perfection, prance around on laminated sheets of super-digests. I don't necessarily rue their current manifestations. I just feel that what may have been gained in better drawings and tauter stories is probably lost in quirkiness.
My favorite was a guy called Super Commando Dhruv who actually did not have any superpowers apart from exceptional athleticism and a brilliant mind. He would patrol the streets of Rajnagar on his motorcycle at nights, preventing crimes and nabbing criminals. Now that I think about his character and about why I liked him so much, maybe it had something to do with his motorcycle. Also, unlike other superheroes who possessed superpowers I, in my naivete, perhaps thought Dhruv was someone I could emulate if only I tried hard enough! He was operating on principles which were coherent and understandable in my logical mind unlike someone like Nagaraj who would shoot snakes from his wrists. Even at that stupid age I realized, often with a mounting sense of resignation, that no matter how hard I tried, the singular talent of shooting snakes from wrists would continue to elude me. I would read Nagaraj's comics with an acute sense of derision which had its roots in a profound envy of those snakes. I would jeer at his victories and attribute them not to anything he had worked for but to the pure coincidence of his having been born with an unusual talent. My contempt was complete and Nagaraj's case wasn't helped with the poor quality of his initial drawings. I remember picking up his comic books and feeling a weird sense of happiness at how clumsy he looked compared to the highly agile and chiseled drawings of Dhruv. When the illustrator of Dhruv (Anupam Varma I think) decided to draw Nagaraj, I never really forgave him for doing that.
There was an entirely different genre of Hindi comics which doesn't really have an easy analogue in the Western canon. These were published by Diamond comics and featured such brilliant creations as 'Chacha Chaudhary', 'Billoo', 'Pinki', and 'Raman'. They were mostly drawn by this guy called 'Cartoonist Pran' whose biography has to be the most circulated one in the history of the world. His slightly plump face, as featured in every single one of those damn comic books, is forever etched in the pages of my memory. Diamond comics were characterized by hilariously bad drawings and mind-bogglingly ridiculous story-lines. Its world mostly consisted of green fields, awkwardly placed trees and criminally disproportional characters. They featured villains who, even at the worst, were merely naughty compared to Raj comics (Dhruv, Nagaraj etc.). I do think that Diamond comics, more than any other, derived its essence from the prevailing Indian sensibilities which implicitly stressed finding happiness and pleasure in the small things in life as the odds of achieving bigger targets were so small. I actually grew on to love those comics and now that I am thinking about it, I feel that that change was very analogous to how children, who begin by liking chocolate ice-cream, often go on to like vanilla as they grow old. There was something otherworldly and pure about their simple plots. An old affable uncle, a few kids up to no good, a dog, a family life dominated by a loving but overbearing female and a guy from Jupiter. How cozy!
Then there were all these other comic books which I never understood who read. Chief among these second raters were Manoj comics and Tulasi comics. I do not really have many memories of these since all my reading time was taken up by such superheroes as Dhruv, Nagaraj, Doga, Parmanu and the off-kilter characters of Diamond comics. There would be a thriving second-hand market for these and one often did not have to buy them as they could be rented for pretty cheap. I was fortunate to witness the essential progression of the Hindi comic. Beginning from what appeared like an isolated originality, it has now merged with the sophistication of the Western comic. I understand that I'm now dangerously close to sounding old and maudlin but I fear that despite the adaptations the era of the Hindi comic might have ended with my generation. Well, as they say, c'est la vie. I am sure that the current generation has its own preoccupations and that years from now it would look back at their demise with the same sense of bittersweet resignation that I have when I think of the surprisingly rich tradition of the Hindi comic (which, by the way, has no analogue in the Southern part of the country).